Olena Sotnyk: Ukraine’s leaders afraid of truly independent judiciary
With President Petro Poroshenko blocking the creation of an anti-corruption court and 80 percent of the new Supreme Court coming from the ranks of corrupt and discredited judges, Olena Sotnyk has scant hope for the justice that Ukrainians crave.
That's why the 34-year-old Kyiv lawyer is focusing her influence, as an opposition member of the 26-member Samopomich Party, on three priorities: Election reform, building a stronger middle class of voters and public TV. All three initiatives have a common denominator: They are aimed at reducing the influence of Ukraine's oligarchs on the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
But in the short run, she admitted in an interview on Sept. 18 with the Kyiv Post, the situation looks bleak in terms of advancing the nation's judicial or law enforcement systems past their Soviet legacies of corruption and political subservience.
While legislation to create an independent anti-corruption court was adopted a year ago,
Poroshenko and other powerful interests have blocked its creation, she said.
The reason is simple.
'They are afraid'
"Of course, they are afraid it can be independent, qualified and rather transparent," Sotnyk said. "We’ve been waiting for three years to see a result. If there would be any opportunity and capability of Ukrainian courts to take decisions and issue verdicts, we would see at least one or two or three. There are no results concerning this high-level corruption. It means there is no capacity and there is no will, and we are not going to get any verdicts."
Poroshenko says that he “has no time” to wait for the creation of an anti-corruption court, noting that choosing a new Supreme Court — a process still under way — has taken 18 months. He also said that no other nations, except for a few poor African or Asian ones, have anti-corruption courts. Those were Poroshenko's arguments earlier in September to members of the European Business Association and the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine. He repeated them at the opening of Victor Pinchuk's 14th annual Yalta European Strategy conference on Sept. 15 in Kyiv.
But Poroshenko got a quick rebuke from John Kerry, the ex-u.s. senator and ex-secretary of state, who said that "in my nation, every court is an anti-corruption court." The Euromaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, 2014, "cannot be betrayed by business as usual which does not move on the issue of corruption,” Kerry said. “I think it’s vital for Ukraine to grab ahold of the moment. It’s not too late, but the decisions made here will help us to be able to defend the future of Ukraine that people have staked their lives for." Sotnyk agrees. But with Poroshenko unwilling to tolerate an independent judiciary, the president's re-election in 2019 will bring "no changes" in this area.
"It's the feeling we are not just going into the wrong direction, but that we are going to stay alone," Sotnyk said. "Nobody is going to support Ukraine when the head of the country doesn't want to do anything and is lying. Sorry, but it's a lie to say the anti-corruption court is not going to work if you’re not even trying. It's a matter of protecting his power or influence."
Beyond the problems of a new 120-member Supreme Court that is not expected to be much different from the old, and the failure to set up an independent anti-corruption court, Sotnyk is worried that anti-corruption agencies established in recent years will stop working altogether.
She has in mind the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Special Anti-corruption Prosecutor's Office and the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption. Aside from those three agencies, Sotnyk noted that the State Investigative Bureau — created to take criminal investigative powers away from the General Prosecutor's Office — is not working yet. Already, NABU head Artem Sytnyk has publicly said it's useless to keep bringing corruption cases to court when judges won't accept them or hear them fairly.
Blocking corruption fight Undermining the corruption fight is the goal of the Presidential Administration and Ukraine's top oligarchs, she said.
"It's one of the main goals of the oligarchic groups and Bankova (Poroshenko’s office)," she said. "In this case; there will be nobody who will resist or fight with high-level corruption, so they can feel free."
Sotnyk thinks the minority of clean judges on the new Supreme Court will not be able to resist the pressure of the majority of distrusted judges.
She lost faith in the selection process after results of the written examinations were made secret. "This written test was closed, so you will never know who was good in this test and who failed," she said. "It's totally controlled from very beginning to end."
The best chance for the establishment of a genuine anti-corruption court, she said, rests with pressure from Western backers, a minority of reformers like herself in parliament and public pressure. That combination has helped achieve other reforms stalled by Poroshenko, including e-declarations of public officials' financial assets and a lustration law to remove Yanukovych-era and other corrupt officials from public service.
But to win public pressure from Ukrainians, she said, politicians will have to do a better job of explaining the connection between a successful anti-corruption fight and the financial well-being of people.
She also said she hopes the Western lending institutions, the International Monetary Fund and others, will insist on the anti-corruption court.
If Poroshenko stops obstructing the process, she said, such a court could be up and running in a matter of months. She can think of at least a dozen qualified judges for such a court. "It is possible within eight months, maximum one year," she said. "We can put it in the 2018 budget now."
Lutsenko unqualified Sotnyk's displeasure with Ukraine's legal system extends to Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who commands 15,000 prosecutors, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who oversees 150,000 people in the National Guard and police.
"He needs to focus on the most seriouse ous c crimes es aga against stt the estate, state,” Sotnyk said of Lutsenko.
Instead, the prosecutor general — who is not a lawyer or a prosecutor by training or education — behaves more like a politician, she said. He was appointed by Poroshenko on May 12, 2016 after international pressure forced the president to finally fire Viktor Shokin, Lutsenko's predecessor, who obstructed the anti-corruption drive.
However, Lutsenko kept most of Shokin's people in place.
"He is trying to focus on well-knownown figures and well-known surnames andnd to show results in very famous cases, s, like the case on Yanukovych," Sotnykyk said. "He's posting on Facebook, where he's e's giving the results before any judges, beforee any court procedures, before anything, like he's the court of the last instance."
The prosecutor general "should first of all be a lawyer," she said, one reason why "nothing has changed" in the work of prosecutors since the Euromaidan Revolution.
Avakov’s obstacles Many people think that the second most powerful person in the nation is Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is politically aligned with exPrime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the second largest faction in parliament, the 81-member People's Front.
Avakov is seeking to expand the powers and his oversight over the National Guard, so that they have both military powers and police enforcement powers. Sotnyk opposes such a move.
"We have only one reform — patrol police," Sotnyk said. And even this change, in which salaries of patrol officers were raised to roughly $500 a month and they were given new cars by foreign donors, is not enough.
The reason, she said, is that criminal investigations are being performed by the old police guard, who are still underpaid and corrupt.
"Talking about all the others, we saw no reforms at all. Nothing. We have a huge problem with the criminal police, which is the main core of the department," Sotnyk said. “Many of them make less than $200 a month, which is, if not an invitation for corruption, then an excuse not to do their jobs. They are not motivated at all," she said. As a result, no criminal investigations of any consequence are carried out, she said.
Avakov also wants to remain as one of the most powerful people in the nation.
"It's about control, it's about influence," she said of the balance between the forces of Avakov and Poroshenko, whose bloc in the 422-seat parliament is the most numerous with 135 members. The president controls the army, the Security Service of Ukraine, prosecutors, and judges, while Avakov controls the National Guard and police.
She said that she supports Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk's proposal for an elite state Financial Investigative Service to tackle big and complicated white collar crimes, such as bank fraud. But again, Sotnyk said, many ministers are competing over who will control the new agency.
Lookingoo g a ahead,ead, s she said, she and like-minded members of parliament face a big public education campaign. "We need to make this linkage o of anti-corruption fighting at the highes highest level with their prosperity, wit with their lives each day," Sotnyk sa said. "Otherwise I am afraid P Poroshenko is not going to pay a any political price."
Lawmaker Olena Sotnyk stands by the presidium of the Verkhovna Rada during a parliament session on July 11 in Kyiv. (UNIAN)